Not Playing Dress-Up
Lindsey Brophy and Sean Lee display their hand-made cosplay outfits in thier forest hill home in San Francisco. The outfits made to look like outfits from a music video by Japanese pop star Kyary Pamyu, with surrealistic and colorful visuals. Photo by John Ornelas
Words: Ben Pack
Photos: Melissa Burman & John Ornelas
The massive crowd is buzzing. The sun is beating down on the concrete courtyard. In one corner sits a small group of ninjas-in-training. They size up the crowd as their metallic headbands glisten. Across the way, stands a troupe of elite robotic soldiers, armed with high-tech laser weaponry. Their red-white and blue-clad leader stands fast, surveying the area. Near them waits an anthropomorphic hedgehog, whose love of going fast is only rivaled by his love for chili dogs.
Scattered around there are beings ranging from human to alien to machine, and some are a mix of all three. There are mercenaries, scientists, mech pilots, lawyers; all eyeing up the competition. This is not a scene from a seventh grader’s history binder, rather these are real people. This isn’t some mystical land, but instead it is San Jose. These are not actors, these are cosplayers.
This scene was months in the making. A look into a cosplayer’s living room reveals the laborious process that is cosplay costume making. Fabric trimmings, chip bags, a disembodied lion head, and wigs are strewn about the room. In the middle of this whirlwind of odds and ends, Lindsey Brophy stands, in this living-room-turned-costume-workshop, working on a strange and cartoonish top. It features gigantic, circular shoulder pads and large eyelashes that are affixed to the breasts, making them look like eyes.
Sean Lee, her boyfriend, is hard at work coating foam balls with resin. After letting them dry and set, he sands them down into fine, smooth spheres which will be attached to form a decorative neck tassel. After all the hard work is complete, the pair will arrive in costume (and character) to an upcoming anime convention. This is the level of their fanaticism.
The date is May 20, 2012, and it is four days before FanimeCon, the annual anime convention “by fans, for fans,” at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. Thousands of people gather for this event, many of them in costume. Cosplay, short for costume play, is when one buys or makes a costume from their favorite movie, television show, webcomic, or more commonly video game or anime, and meets with others also in costume. This will be Lindsey and Sean’s third Fanime together.
Like many cosplay enthusiasts, Lindsey makes her costumes. She remembers the first time she decided that she wanted to cosplay. While Sean had been going to anime conventions since middle school, Lindsey’s first was in January of 2009.
“I saw people dressed up and I was kinda like ‘this seems like a missed opportunity, why would I not get dressed up?” Lindsey says. “This seems like the thing to do.”
Lindsey makes most of the costumes, and Sean works on props. Along with her costumes, Lindsey also helps friends make part, or all of their costumes, averaging about five whole unique costumes a year. Like many cosplayers, the pre-Fanime crunch is the busiest time of year for Lindsey. The costume she is currently working on is from Japanese pop idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s surreal music video for her hit “Tsukema Tsukeru”.
Her outfit consists of green tights, the purple eyelash top, a gigantic pink bow, and an oversized black tutu covered in bags of chips. His costume is one of the two poppin-n-lockin lions from the music video that reveal halfway through they’re actually men in fox masks. This is Sean’s cosplay, as he often picks to complement Lindsey’s costume. He even memorized the dance, and he’s pretty good at it.
Lindsey recalls going out as soon as her finals were done, which was the week before Fanime, to buy her materials. Exhaustion set in for Lindsey while cutting, sewing, and fitting both for herself and friends.
“I worked on costumes for about ten hours a day. Four days before Fanime, I got eight hours of sleep; after that I got about four hours; and the night before Fanime I didn’t sleep at all.”
Sean’s job is not only working on props, but providing support for Lindsey. “I was basically running errands for Lindsey and making sure that she stayed fed… and sane,” Sean says.
“Relatively sane,” Lindsey adds.
While they work together to create these costumes and feel like the experience is overall beneficial to their relationship, there are still tenuous moments.
“If you do anything that stresses you out a lot, you’re just going to snap,” Lindsey says, laughing. “And that’s happened, quite a few times.”
But overall, Lindsey and Sean say they have no regrets and no plans on slowing down when it comes to their cosplay hobby. Sean thinks that the cosplay movement is only growing in popularity.
“I think [cosplay] is a word people know now.”
Angelo Valiao and Justine Perez dressed as characters from the video game “Ragnarock Online.” They have been dating for 6 years and work together on cosplay.
While cosplay is slowly creeping into the American consciousness, it is not a new activity. According to costuming.org, evidence of people dressing in costume for events dates all the way back to the First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 where people dressed in science fiction-oriented outfits. Over the past few decades, it skyrocketed in popularity in Japan, where cosplay models began to be treated like celebrities and most youth were aware of the phenomena. While it is hard to tell whether cosplay in America is a hobby that comes directly from Japan, it has existed in some form in America for decades.
More popular cosplays obviously stem from more popular source materials. Ryu or Chun Li from Street Fighter and popular anime and manga series Naruto are popular choices for cosplayers. Characters from the long-running web series known as Homestuck are common choices too, with cosplayers covering themselves in grey and glittery body paint and extravagant rainbow horns.
That is not to say that there are many cosplayers who prefer more obscure source materials to cosplay from. Often multiple people will cosplay in groups, as several characters from the same source. There are also trends such as “gender bending,” or “crossplay,” which is the art of doing a male version of a female character and vice versa.
There are levels to this fanaticism. Some buy their costume en masse, but the more “hardcore” cosplayers build their costumes from custom parts. Some even make a business of making and selling these custom outfits. There are people who focus on fabric and the actual costumes, to those that specifically make grandiose props like oversized swords or replica rifles.
Fascination with cosplay is catching on. Photographers are starting to specialize in it, some even spending hours in Photoshop adding special effects like flames or intricate backdrops to make the fantasy even more real. There are cosplay bloggers who spend their time devoted to covering their passion. Companies even pay cosplay models to dress up and endorse their products as brand ambassadors.
While some people enjoy cosplay at a very basic level, such as buying whole costumes from stores, many experienced cosplayers will not accept anything that isn’t mostly handmade. There are sites like CosplayMagic.com which sell costumes ranging in price from $80-$500 and despite that it is often not more cost-effective, most cosplay enthusiasts prefer to do the construction themselves. The hardcore fans want to ensure that they have the exact same fabric as their characters or as close as they can be. These are the fans that spend hours studying the source material and consult with other cosplayers. Some cosplayers spend hours arguing over which fabric or shoes would better fit for the costume. Custom wigs are made by blending two together, or dying and layering wigs to get exactly the same hair as the subject.
Patricia King has been cosplaying since 2002, creating dozens of costumes over the past decade. She spends hundreds of dollars on her elaborate costumes and frequents as many conventions in her area as she can.
“It’s about more than looking like a character,” Patricia says, “It’s becoming that character.” Patricia started out buying all parts of her costume, but felt it was inauthentic and “cheating.” Getting into the character’s mind, she says, is what cosplay is all about.
“I mean, I’m not saying that you can’t have fun not making the costume, but it’s a lot more fun to actually make, you know, to have it come from the heart,” Patricia continues. “You gotta know about your character, too. I would never ever cosplay as something that I don’t know inside and out. I’m not like some of those other famous cosplayers who just want to look sexy and have dudes oggle them. The point is if you’re not in character, it’s not really cosplay,” she said as she worked on a sexy Harley Quinn costume, the Joker’s female sidekick.
This idea of portraying a character rather than dressing up just to dress up is where you see the difference between cosplayers and those who dress up for events like Burning Man. While not all are like Patricia in that regard of character role play, the majority of cosplayers pick costumes that are special to them in some way.
Cosplay is gaining steam in the public eye. Smaller conventions are selling out faster and faster and moving to bigger venues, or even bigger cities where people who have had no idea what cosplay is are starting to see it for themselves. A hugely popular Japanese cosplay magazine known as COSMODE has been localized online for American audiences. Even MTV has done an episode of its reality-based show True Life on cosplayers.
One of the more mainstream instances of knowledge of cosplay comes from the most widely known convention, Comic-Con. In 1970 a group of San Diego natives started the Golden State Comic Book Convention, which would go on to become the San Diego Comic-Con. The event has come a long way since the humble 300 attendees in 1970, when people from all over the Southern California area made the pilgrimage in their mom’s Ford Aerostar to the convention as a Mecca of nerdiness. The tradition of dressing up for conventions started here, with attendees in Halloween-style costumes of Superman and the like. Today Comic-Con is one of the largest events for comic book and other media enthusiasts. It has grown so large that for the first year in its history pre-registration tickets for 2013’s Comic-Con sold out in less than an hour.
Thousands participate at Fanime, but more than 100,000 go to Comic-Con. The biggest celebrities in nerd and even popular culture make appearances promoting their projects every year. Some celebrities even do their own cosplay. Adam Savage from television show Mythbusters cosplayed as No-Face, a towering, ghost-like character from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.
Ronald Fresca, a 56-year-old software engineer and San Diego native has been dressing up like this at Comic-Con for almost 30 years.
“It all started with the release of The Voyage Home,” Fresca said. The Voyage Home was the fourth Star Trek movie, which premiered in 1986. “Me and four other guys all dressed up as the crew. I was Kirk, because it was my idea.”
Fresca and his friends had custom Star Trek uniforms made by one of Fresca’s friends, who had worked on costume design for small-budget movies for years. They dressed up for the premiere, waiting in line in costume. Each of them wore a matching outfit, black pants and a different colored top, signifying which department of the Starship Enterprise they hailed from.
“Nobody really thought we were weird in line, because they were just a bunch of nerds like us who wished they had what we had goin’ on. Though some of the passers-by were, let’s say, less than impressed.”
The idea of dressing up didn’t end for Fresca with Kirk and Spock trying to save the whales. He left Starfleet behind and continued to wear different costumes at various events, including Comic-Con.
“I mostly do superheroes,” he clarifies. “I started off buying the costumes whole. I went through a phase where I tried making everything, but now I have less time than I did back then. I just buy the main parts and customize it when I can.” This past Comic-Con, Fresca wore the costume of superhero Plastic Man, complete with Speedo bottom.
“It’s cool to see more people doing this thing,” Fresca says. “It’s a lot easier now, you know, when I was a kid I probably couldn’t do one-tenth of what kids today are doing with their costumes. I mean, I still don’t make everything from scratch, but I have the option to much easier than I used to.”
With any growing hobby, there are those that are on the forefront of covering it. Ejen Chuang, a 35-year-old Los Angeles native remembers back to 2008 when he decided on a whim to go to the Anime Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. He decided to bring some lighting equipment, his camera, and a backdrop to photograph some people with friends. He ended up staying for the whole four-day convention instead of the few hours he had originally planned.
Over the next year and a half, Ejen traveled America photographing cosplayers from California to Georgia and Maryland. He worked as a freelance photographer and photographer’s assistant to help finance his travel. He photographed 1,600 people, and in April of 2010 Ejen put out Cosplay in America, a coffee-table book including many high-quality photos of cosplayers.
“Cosplay is a lot of fun. When you go to conventions you get to see a lot of people smiling, and when you’re taking pictures of happy subjects it’s more fun for everyone,” Ejen says.
Chaung believes that cosplay is more universal than it may appear. “When I was a kid, you know we all do this, I had a blanket, and I ran out of my parents house thinking I was Superman. Cosplay is the same, but now you’re 10, 20 years older and have more money and technology.”
Technology has had a huge effect on both how people cosplay, and how people interact in the cosplay community. From talking with people who have been cosplaying for many years, Ejen noted that using the Internet to order things has made it much more accessible for people to cosplay. The rise of social media has also contributed.
“Twitter and Facebook really helped. It makes it a lot easier for people to not only see what we’re doing, but also organize events and find other people passionate about cosplay,” Ejen said. “Unfortunately today you see more of a popularity contest.”
Many cosplayers have Facebook fan pages, to separate their personal life from their cosplay life. More popular cosplayers in America, such as Linda “Vampy” Le and Jessica Nigri, have 50 and 125 thousand “likes” respectively. Then there are worldwide cosplay superstars, like Alodia Gosiengfiao from the Philippines, who sports more than one million likes on her page. It kind of feels like voting for prom queen, except this time the winner already has the crown, because she’s dressed like Wonder Woman.
“With girls and nerdiness,” Ejen says, “there’s this phenomena where people don’t think girls can be sexy and nerdy. They have to prove their nerdiness, like they’re just pretending. It’s especially odd, since it’s much ‘cooler’ to be a nerd now. When I was in high school, I got picked on a lot for being a nerd.”
Ejen is also worried in how cosplay will be represented when it comes to the mainstream media. He recalls an episode of CSI about people who dress up as “furries,” or anthropomorphic animal suits that are sometimes used in fetish acts.
“They talk about how all furries, in that show, are just obsessed with sex. I’ve met plenty of furries and I mean, sure, there are those in it for the sex but most are just there to meet and hang out with people with similar interests,” Ejen says. “Now most people associate furries with sex and murder. I don’t want something like that to happen with cosplay.”
“Like with furries I do think that there are undertones of sex within the cosplay community, but personally, so many of these people put so much work into their costume that I don’t think they would want to ruin it doing stuff like that.”
Unlike furries, cosplayers still have a positive relationship that is sometimes used for other means. Occasionally companies will hire cosplayers to model outfits from their game, as well as demonstrate their product. While her official title would be “brand ambassador,” many have taken to calling them the more derogatory “booth babe.” The concept of having attractive women (and sometimes men) model next to your product is a concept as old as boat shows, but having models dress in provocative cosplay is a fairly recent trend. Many criticize the process for being sexist, with some conventions such as the Penny Arcade Expo East, and more recently China’s largest convention China Joy, banning these brand ambassadors. According to a report from iO9.com, cosplay model Li Ling was banned and fired for having an outfit that was “too vulgar,” even though it was approved by the company that hired her, which is saying a lot by cosplay standards.
But Ejen, like many cosplayers, doesn’t let the smaller things bog his enjoyment of cosplay down. “Life can be crappy at times. You want to get away from family and money issues and work. You just go to conventions to have a good time.”
While many go to conventions solely with the purpose of hanging out with friends and showing off cosplay during the day, many of the cosplay community definitely are no strangers to the party scene. Many conventions take place in centers with attached hotels, and after hours become host to a lively party scene. Rooms will host parties that last until the late hours of the morning, with fully stacked bars. With the convention halls being open late or all night there are many roving packs of parties boozing all night. While many cosplayers are reserved in other social interactions, when in a comfortable place, they seem to party like any other young adult out with friends would.
Cosplay exists for many different reasons for many different people. From hanging out with friends to portraying a character, there are many facets of this hobby that are enjoyed by all sorts of people. Sean thinks back to taking Lindsey to conventions after she started cosplaying.
“I mean, it’s definitely a good thing that I’m able to take Lindsey to conventions and have something for her to do. Now Lindsey has a reason to go to these conventions,” he says. “She gets her picture taken often, and we’ve met a lot of people through conventions who Lindsey wouldn’t have interacted with really. Before she started going to conventions, she thought that all people who went anime conventions were mouth-breathers.”
Lindsey turns to Sean with somewhat of a scowl: “Thanks Sean for sharing that tidbit… true story.”